Preludes – and All That Jazz. Preludes by Gershwin and Kapustin

Following on from 1910 Preludes by Rachmaninoff and Debussy in a recent post, here are two twentieth century composers whose Preludes reflect the influence of jazz.

Jazz seeped into the classical mainstream in the music of Millhaud, Stravinsky and Ravel, and in America in the music of Gershwin. His piano concerto, the orchestral piece An American in Paris, and the opera Porgy and Bess all exude the harmonies and rhythms of the jazz age. And so do Gershwin’s Three Preludes for solo piano, first performed by the composer in New York in 1926, and dedicated to Bill Daly.

Here is Gershwin’s own recording of his Preludes.

The first prelude is introduced by two unaccompanied bars of melody, rather as if a solo saxophone were trying out a few notes. A punchy LH rhythm then propels the music on its way beneath a tune based on the introduction. It’s bright, it’s breezy, and the final scale zips up the piano with the hands a fourth apart.

Gershwin referred to the second prelude as a Nocturne. Above a moody LH figure which rocks back and forth croons a bluesy melody; think Ella Fitzgerald, and warm sultry nights. The middle part can be played with crossed hands; the tonality is major although with ‘blue’ notes still present; the rhythm is jaunty, the accompaniment can be lightly played, as if strummed. The opening music returns, concluding eventually on a major chord, but with a delayed, single flattened seventh note to add a final touch of the blues. Place it with care.

Driving rhythms characterise the third prelude, with perilous leaps towards the end. Keep them clean!

Nikolai Kapustin will celebrate his eightieth birthday on the auspicious date of November 22nd this year. He studied at the  Moscow Conservatory, but early experience of jazz influences his style, which fuses Russian virtuosity with jazz idioms.

His 24  Preludes in Jazz Style Op 53 of 1988 follow the circle of fifths. Many are technically demanding, but No 3 in G major is less challenging and a good place to start exploration.

Languid, colourful chords brood thoughtfully, with some fairly outrageous, X-rated harmonies thrown in occasionally to capture the listener unawares. It’s a real winner; I’ve performed it many times this year and have always been confronted by a string of people asking for details.

Listen here:

And No 4 follows it well – enjoy!


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